The Mare’s Nest: A History of Provenance
Rik Mayall

Please note this history is a work of fiction by the artist Rory Macbeth. See the Tate collection for information about the artwork.

Unknown artist (Style of the C17th British School) Richard Mayall Oil on Canvas, from Rory Macbeth essays

Unknown artist (Style of the C17th British School)
Richard Mayall
Oil on Canvas

The provenance for this picture is not technically false, but for the casual viewer it is inferred that this is indeed a 17th-century British School portrait (even the wall text is fairly ambiguous about its origins). The reason for its infiltration into the gallery here is much the same for the false provenance we have seen for The Alsager Roteane – money. And like the roteane, it is using the cult of celebrity as a lever.

It is, of course, a very recent work. The celebrity in this case is the comedian Rik Mayall, who is still very much alive, and the work was completed only a couple of months ago.

It is one of a series of commissions depicting celebrities in the style of one of the Tate Rooms, and exhibited there alongside real Tudor and Stuart portraits. Other commissions in the series feature Dame Judi Dench as a Sybil by Romney, and Westlife in a John Martin painting.

Mayall is portrayed in all the finery of the age he has chosen and with suitable symbolism to match the era. The Latin motto next to the tiny world he points to with his stick, refers to his career as an actor (‘The microcosm of the microcosm is not filled even by the megacosm’), and the same sentiment of ‘all the world’s a stage’ can be seen in the very flat rendering of the landscape, whose naivety compared to the foreground suggests a theatrical backdrop. Similarly the objects behind him are very much props, and include a violin, books, and a costume, referring to the dramatic arts.

However, on closer inspection, the rendering of the face especially, and the sense of light in the work is clearly photographic in origin, and though beautifully done, is at odds with the other work in this room. There is also a smoothness and freshness to the paint that sets it apart from its real companions in the gallery, which all have the patination of age, faded colours, and a true naivety in composition.

The work has been undertaken by a team of Tate copyists, as part of a wider fundraising and publicity drive instigated by Sir Nicholas Serota. Celebrities were approached to have their portrait painted and hung in the gallery in return for a substantial private donation, and on agreeing to having the process filmed for a documentary. The Tate has for some time now run its own in-house production company, producing programs for The South Bank Show, Arena, and The Culture Show, as well as regularly covering the Turner Prize (ironically, a long time before Turner prize nominee Phil Collins set up his own Shady Lane Productions as an art piece in this very gallery). The objective was to secure not only sizable donations from the individuals and to use their fame as a publicity gimmick, but also to ensure a healthy income through the television rights. The documentary series about the making of these works will be shown on Channel 4 in July 2007.